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From the Publisher"Neon is undoubtedly an important part of Nevada’s image, brand, and history, pictures of it throughout time capturing the state’s economic health, self-perception, and appeals to tourists. Although Lili Lakich’s foreword might raise an eyebrow by comparing neon signs to the highest aspirations of the American dream and the lowest manifestations of commercialism, and stating that no other medium so aptly expresses the American spirit, the execution of this book just might prove her to be correct."
- The Nevada Review
A light at the end of the tunnel is supposed to signify something good, something hopeful, something new, something better. If the tunnel leads to Nevada where all good, hopeful, new and better things are possible, then the light most certainly comes from flickering neon.
This luminous symbol of the glitz and glamor, guts and glory of Nevada is the subject of the book “Neon Nevada,” by husband and wife neon enthusiasts Peter Laufer and Sheila Swan. This effort is not a new one for the couple, rather it represents the continuation of a lifelong passion.
Written in the style of a travel journal, Laufer, a longtime Nevada newsman and now a journalism professor at the University of Oregon, and Swan have made three journeys around Nevada in search of neon relics. Swan said the first trip was an unplanned search for neon; the second, in the early 1990s, was a more organized hunt; and the third, made in 2010, was an attempt to find what has become a disappearing element of Nevada’s landscape.
Through their words and photographs, taken over a span of more than 30 years though all of equal quality and beauty, the reader gets to hop in the back seat and follow Laufer’s and Swan’s exploration across the Silver State. The book’s pages are dominated by the images of neon signs — some of which still can be found, many of which are now gone — with just enough words to keep the reader’s attention, similar to a driver telling a story that is only interesting as long as the subject can be seen out the car window at 60 mph.
According to the couple’s research, the science behind neon signs was developed in Paris on 1910 as an alternative to incandescent light. In 1923, a car dealer from Los Angeles was inspired by the lighting when he saw it while on vacation and brought it home to his showroom. The neon sign was a hit and began its march across the United States.
The book contains a photograph of the earliest known appearance of neon n Nevada in the window of People’s Market in Las Vegas in 1928. It didn’t take long for neon to catch on as a way to attract travelers to casinos and,in true Nevada style, the signs became bigger and fancier so as to outdo the competition.
In the epilogue, Swan and Laufer are optimistic about the survival of neon as both a form advertising and an art form in Nevada. That enthusiasm is tempered, however, by the fact that neon now has a museum of its own, indicating that while it has a following it also is a thing of the past. The book ends thus: “Whether a waving giant cowboy, an undulating casino wall alive with red and orange luminous stripes, and a flying blue pig are considered art is — as always — in the eye of the beholder, but there is no question these neon creations command attention. In our society, that alone guarantees the survival of the genre.” – Daily Sparks Tribune
Three times in nearly 35 years, Sheila Swan and Peter Laufer have traversed Nevada in search of neon. In their first quest in 1978, they photographed neon signs from downtown Las Vegas to the mom 'n' pop motels and bars scattered across the Nevada landscape, their interest piqued by the two small neon signs in their living room in Silver City. They found scores of examples, such as the signs for the Cal Neva Lodge and
Harvey's Resort Hotel at Lake Tahoe, and the Frontier and Comstock motels in Carson City, whose signs sported not just lettering but figures animated by the lighting synchronization of gas-filled glass tubes.
Then, in the early 1990s, the couple set out again, looking for the same signs they'd seen in the 1970s and any others to add to their collection. They found the French Bar in Gardnerville and the neon boots of the Burns Brothers Truck Stop in Mill City, among others. Their first "Neon Nevada" book came out in 1994.
A few years ago, rummaging in their garage, Swan and Laufer found the photo transparencies of their first journey and decided to hit the road again to look for new signs and rediscover old ones that still existed.
The result is a new "Neon Nevada" (Globe Pequot Press, $16.95 hardcover), which contains neon photos from 1978 into the 21st century, commentary and plenty of neon history. "We see a cycle. When we went out the first time in the late 1970s, neon was in decline," said Laufer, an author, broadcaster, filmmaker and journalism professor at the University of Oregon. "We wanted to capture and preserve those signs that were disappearing and in disrepair. "The second trip, in the early 1990s, there seemed to be a renaissance or a new appreciation (for neon)," he said.
The last trip, Laufer said, was to complete the field of study. "Now, we interpret there has been a full reflowering and understanding that this is an art form in addition to commercial expression," he said. "It has unique-to-Nevada aspects and has influenced Nevada culture." Taking that third journey in winter kept Swan and Laufer from touring all the sites they visited on earlier trips, but they also saw places they'd not explored before, such as Pahrump, Swan said. "We wanted to look at progression, to go back to places and see (what had changed)," Laufer said. One example is Reno's Merry Wink Motel on South Virginia Street.
In the 1970s, it was still a roadside stop with a bearded gentleman on the sign whose neon eye winked. By the 1990s, the signworked, but only on one side of the billboard.
"By the time we got back last year, it was no longer operating as a motel, it was apartments, and the sign was still there, but a shadow of its former self," Laufer said. There's hope for neon, the art medium that's seeing a resurgence in recent years and renewed interest in older, even non-working
signs. "The Neon Boneyard Museum has opened in Las Vegas," said Swan, an author and photographer, and "there is a fellow in Reno actively refurbishing signs. There's new activity going on." "There is an expression of permanence in Vegas (with the museum) and with craftsmen like the fellow in Reno who has decided this is what he wants to do," Laufer said. "There is an awareness. In one casino in Wendover, the inside is alive with majestic neon.
"A lot of mega-casinos barely nod their heads to neon," Laufer said, "but in some ways maybe what is still here and what is being made is being done with more consciousness of its value.” - RenoGazette Journal
"Speaking of the States and things iconic, consider Nevada. Neon Nevada is, according to the publisher Globe Pequot, "a stirring ode to a fading tradition and a celebration of a unique modern art." – Publishers Weekly (2011 Top 10 Art & Architecture book list)